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Stocks close mixed; banks and chemicals firms slide

Stocks close mixed; banks and chemicals firms slide
A Wall Street address sign is carved into the side of a building in New York. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

U.S. stocks barely budged Thursday as investors moved cautiously after two days of large gains. Utilities and phone companies rose the most thanks to a decline in bond yields, while chemical companies and banks surrendered some of their recent gains.

Stocks alternated between small losses and gains and moved more on individual news than broad trends. Retailers Dollar Tree and Costco rose after they reported strong quarterly results. That made them exceptions in a difficult quarter for department stores, watch sellers and clothing companies.

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Stocks got a small boost after Jerome Powell, who sits on the Federal Reserve's committee that determines interest rates, suggested the Fed will wait a little longer before it raises rates again.

"That reduces the risk of an unpleasant surprise at the June meeting," said Jim McDonald, chief investment strategist for Northern Trust. Fed chief Janet Yellen will speak at Harvard University on Friday, and McDonald said investors did not want to make big moves before knowing her views.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 23.22 points, or 0.1%, to 17,828.29. The Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped 0.44 of a point to 2,090.10. The Nasdaq composite index advanced 6.88 points, or 0.1%, to 4,901.77.

Bond yields, which have risen over the last few weeks, slumped as prices rose. That sent utility and phone company stocks higher because those stocks are seen as similar to bonds, and the lower yields make them more appealing compared with bonds. NextEra Energy rose 1.3% to $119.82 and Con Edison climbed 1.3%, to $72.73. AT&T advanced 0.6% to $38.84.

The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell to 1.83% from 1.87%.

Chemical companies, which posted some of the biggest gains Wednesday, traded lower. Monsanto, which has jumped on talks about a potential sale to Bayer, fell 1.8% to $109.62. DuPont fell 1.9% to $66.96. Citigroup led banks lower, declining 1.8% to $46.11.

Weak earnings reports have weighed on retailers' stocks in recent weeks. Among other problems, shoppers aren't spending as much on clothes and the strong dollar is hurting profits and sales overseas. Department stores have been hit the hardest.

But on Thursday, several retailers disclosed solid results from the last three months.

Discount retailer Dollar Tree said its first-quarter profit more than tripled and it raised its forecasts for the year. Its stock soared 12.8% to $88.37. Also jumping after a strong report was PVH, the owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, which advanced 4.3% to $93.73. Wholesale club operator Costco rose 3.6% to $149.71.

Like the broader market, oil prices were little changed. U.S. crude slipped 8 cents to $49.48 a barrel in New York while Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, fell 15 cents to $49.59 a barrel in London. Oil prices are at their highest level since October, but U.S. crude hasn't closed above $50 a barrel since July.

Stocks have risen to some of their highest levels of 2016, driven by investors encouraged by strong monthly home sales in the U.S. and economic support for Greece. But similar news Thursday, including a drop in new applications for unemployment benefits and further growth in pending home sales, didn't make much of a difference for Wall Street. And a government report showed that a measurement of business investment fell for the third month in a row. That suggests manufacturing is still under pressure.

Jewelry company Signet Jewelers slumped after it posted weaker-than-expected sales and lowered its projections for sales at older stores. The stock slid 10.5% to $97.

Personal computer and printer maker HP reported a bigger profit than analysts had forecast, and it gave a solid outlook for the year. The stock climbed 6.9% to $13.04.

U.S. Foods Holding, the second-biggest food service distributor in the country, went public with a $1.02-billion initial public offering. That was one of the largest IPOs of the year, as the market turmoil over the last few months has made companies hesitant to go public. The stock jumped 8.3% to $24.91.

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In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline fell 2 cents to $1.62 a gallon. Heating oil declined 1 cent to $1.50 a gallon. Natural gas fell 3 cents to $1.96 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The price of gold slipped for the seventh day in a row, falling $3.40 to $1,220.40 an ounce. Silver rose 8 cents to $16.34 an ounce. Copper was unchanged at $2.10 a pound.

France's CAC and Germany's DAX each rose 0.7% and the FTSE in Britain was little changed. Japan's Nikkei 225 index advanced nearly 0.1%. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose 0.1%.

The dollar slipped to 109.72 yen from 110.10 yen. The euro inched up to $1.1191 from $1.1160.

UPDATES:

2:26 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

1:19 p.m.: This article was updated with closing prices.

10:22 a.m.: This article was updated with more recent prices and additional information.

This article was originally published at 7:56 a.m.

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